Analogies: learning to transform scientific discoveries into politics

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Interview with Mario Molina, with Sébastien Treyer and Aleksandar Rankovic (Iddri), Alexis Bonnel (Afd) and Isabelle Biagiotti (AIDA, Regards sur la Terre)

Your name is associated with the discovery of the ozone layer problem and the negotiation of the Montreal Protocol regulating damaging CFCs emissions. Can you tell us what engineered such a successful political solution? How different is it today with the climate issue?

Mario Molina: There are number of analogies between the Montreal Protocol and the climate change debate, but there are also some important differences. Historically, the ozone issue starts with Sherwood Rowland and I exploring the fate of the CFCs' in the atmosphere., We were not in the environmental or the policy fields; we were fundamental scientists at that time, but decided we wanted to learn about the atmosphere by picking an interesting problem in that field. Eventually, we came up with some worrisome ideas that we published in the journal Nature. We thought it was something important enough to try and communicate beyond our scientific colleagues. We decided that we had to do something to communicate both with people in government and with some politicians starting in the United States, but also wherever it would be needed. We decided to communicate with the media as well, in order to reinforce our message, because usually politicians respond more to media pressure than to scientific results. We also realized it was something we had to do ourselves. It was not obvious because at that time, in the 1970s, it was not generally accepted in the scientific community to directly communicate with the media. We had a few colleagues who went regularly to major newspapers such as the New York Times, but they were not very well regarded and thought to be merely seeking publicity. We decided nevertheless that it was our social responsibility, because there was no clear reporting mechanism at that time for environmental problems. At present there are many environmental organizations that could conceivably take the job, but at that time there were only some that were beginning to emerge; this was a new problem and most of the environmental issues that those organizations were dealing with were local issues.

We set up to do the job with some Congressmen in the US, as well as with some reporters. It was a slow process but some writers became interested enough to even publish a couple of books. The first press release we produced took the opportunity of the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, the largest professional organization there is, convening both scientists and the industry. We were beginners; we didn't know how to do that, so we decided to do it very orderly – the scientific way. One should start by explaining the CFCs could be measured in the atmosphere, and at the end Sherry Rowland and I would talk to explain that we were expecting a problem. As you can imagine it was a mistake because reporters only hear the beginning of the presentation. They all left before we could even talk about the problem. It took us a while, but we understood eventually how to do it. Especially we understood the usefulness of convincing several congressmen and senators in the US.

There were a few skeptics since the beginning – people from industry refusing the idea that the government should regulate on such “theoretical” matters. It was alright because what we had were only hypotheses and we needed time to test them. But then in order to destroy our credibility a journal accused us of being members of the KGB– and this is one of the similarities I see with the climate debate today. Another journal said that we produced only “crazy science”. We had to be very persistent as the climatologists today have to be. Some of the “scientists” that opposed our results back then are interestingly enough the same that question the reality of climate change today. But the fundamental opposition was political, not scientific: “Government should not tell us what to do”. This is a dogma, not something you can easily discuss. Public decisions are sometimes poorly made, but you cannot expect voluntary actions alone to deal effectively with environmental problems. Even if public action is more largely accepted today in the US, it is still the way that most Republicans currently in Congress think: it is just not appropriate for the government to regulate on this, even if the science is very clear on the problem.

What was the turning point allowing a political answer at the international level?

M. Molina: The first stage was to assure the science was correct. It was not just convincing the media or the politicians that Sherwood Rowland and myself were right. We realized it had to be something more objective. There the crucial event was a US National Academy publication: it gave a lot more scientific weight to our ideas. Then with that scientific weight behind, the next important step was to work with the UN, and especially the World Meteorological Organization – which in a way preceded what we have now with the UNFCCC. This is a very important precedent because climate change just follows the same pattern. We became familiar with the UN processes as they started to meet. Scientists participated to the meetings just to explain the science, but the main objective of the meetings was political: what could be done and how?

For example, the developed nations were the ones causing the problem, very similar to climate change, and had thus to provide funds to help the developing nations. So the multilateral fund was created, arousing at first a lot of worries in the US. I remember the media were afraid of a precedent being set for the rich countries to pay for global damages. And they were right! Looking back, I see how important it was: it turns out it a very minor cost for the economy, but a very powerful political tool to create cooperation. Of course, there were voices predicting the destruction of jobs and so on – again very similar to the climate change issue now, but nothing of that kind happened. And what we didn't have at that time was very good economists able to evaluate the cost of change and inaction. Nicholas Stern, for example, has powerfully demonstrated the case for climate action in his report. It is important that some stages of the politics/science connection involve economists, so as not to rely only on the good will of industries. In a way, the main difference between the two issues is that for the ozone layer, only a very small group of actors was affected – the large chemicals industries – whereas climate change involves a much larger share of economic resources and many of the largest economic actors.

In the ozone debate, the stronger fight was not with the chemical industries. The opposition came initially mostly from small spray can manufacturers and some dogma-minded politicians. We were in some sense lucky to have most large chemical industries worried to preserve their good name. Particularly the DuPont company, the largest one: they were initially very much opposed, but they were also financing research – applied, not fundamental, but with impressive results such as Teflon. They made the commitment that if the science is proven to be correct they would stop producing CFCs. This happened clearly at the second scientific stage – when the ozone hole appeared, because at first we only had a theory that something may happen. In between, DuPont had hired a scientist from our community who helped us have access to the CEO and to have them stop the production of the CFCs. One can hope the current commitment of European oil companies to stop climate change will go as far. The chemical companies were able to develop quite rapidly chemicals to replace the CFCs. In the end, they didn't end up losing much and it became a much friendlier process with the affected industries. With the international fund, the international meetings became very positive and smooth and continue to expand to these days!

Do you think the way the climate expertise is organized explains also partly its difficulties to convince politicians of the necessity to act now at the required scale?

M. Molina: The scientific meetings in the two processes are quite similar with the idea to keep science apart from political debate. The first difference with the IPCC is that eventually the reports have to be approved by the governments. After the scientists write them, the language has to be approved. It opens the door to non-scientific formulation and interpretation. Some requirements – neutral and easy-to-understand language, no policy recommendations – are in my view exaggerated, if not counterproductive. The divergence between processes grow with the subsequent steps, especially in the US. The fact that the Congress is Republican-dominated explains that at present there cannot be any international agreement ratified by the US. If the US doesn't ratify a price on emissions, it doesn't make sense to have any price on emissions. The stratospheric ozone issue was not so politicized. The Montreal Protocol was recommended and approved in the US with a Republican administration. Today some former Republican Congressmen who believe in climate change cannot convince their colleagues to cooperate on this issue because it has become their dogma not to accept public action on climate change.

Naomi Oreskes, a historian working on climate, has documented how some of the public relations on climate were made with important funding from interested groups. They sympathized among others with the Tea-Party Group, and the public relations companies involved were the same that have worked for tobacco companies to counter smoking regulation. This underlines again how we, scientists, are very poor at communicating with the public. It is new for us to try and change that, to learn to better communicate.

In the United States, I led a group of 14 climate scientists coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to write a summary of what is known about climate change science. Surveys find a stable 10% of true deniers, who take climate change to be, for example, a communist plot. What is surprising is that this 10% becomes 52% in the US Congress. Our group wants to introduce more rationality in the US public debate. The next step is to test different ways of explaining climate change to the general public, and to measure results. We want to be able to give them key messages and to dissipate some of the myths. For example, some public relation companies emphasize the fact that some scientists think one way and some others another way concluding thus that there is no certainty. We answer them that even if we may not know everything, what we know, which includes the basic science, we know very well. And we emphasize that most scientists who oppose climate change are not doing proper science or are not even climate specialists. They are often doing what you call in English “cherry-picking”: they arbitrarily select some data to prove their point. The problem is mainly the US: there are skeptics in other countries as well, but they are not quite as involved in policy issues.

Despite the influence of climate change deniers, climate change policies have been developed both on mitigation and adaptation. Shouldn't the science change also, doing less alerting and more policy counseling on implementing climate policies?

M. Molina: I don't agree with that. The IPPC is by design meant not to give policy advice. This doesn't mean they are only warning; it means that they won't tell you what to do. What they tell you is what will happen if we don't change the way we are doing things, if we change somewhat or if we change totally. The economists tell us the cost of every likely action. They give a whole list of possible actions but refrain to use the word “should”. Taking their language only for a warning is a misconception of what they mean.

When here in Paris everyone is talking about the way not to exceed 2°C warming, it is not really science: it is science plus economics, because doing much more would be too costly, and doing less would be too risky. The most important message contained in the IPCC reports according to me and to several of my colleagues is: if you don't reduce emissions, if you continue like the Republicans currently in the US Congress would like to –then by the end of century, models tell us that there is about a one in five chance that the average surface temperature of the planet will increase above 5 or 6 degrees. This is not the most likely course, but it is the most serious worry. And this would be very likely above any sustainable threshold for humanity: heatwaves, tremendous upheavals with huge number of people having to move, food scarcity, large parts of the planet becoming unlivable. And one in five is a tremendous risk. You don't climb in an airplane if you have a one in ten chance not to make a safe journey. One in five is absolutely unacceptable. This probability takes into account what we don't know, because of the complexity of the climate system. But we are used to probabilities. They are part of biological and medical sciences. If there is a one in five chance that your tumor is cancerous, you will take it out, no questions asked. Thus it is unacceptable not to act on climate because of uncertainties of that magnitude.

We can't wait until the end of the century to verify what will happen. We have to stop now if we want things not to happen by the end of the century, because of the very long times that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere. And we are in fact already being affected ourselves by changes. But the main reason is not only science and economics: it is ethics as well. We inherited from previous generations a lot of scientific knowledge, means to achieve good standards of living, etc.; among other things life expectancy has doubled. It is fundamental ethics to give our children at least the same chance as we have to achieve an acceptable standard of living.

When I mention ethical issues I am not anymore talking as a scientist. Let us be clear on that: when I am making such statements I am talking as a person. Scientists alone will not solve the problem, but society as a whole can do it. What to do or not to do is not science – science alone could as well drop atomic bombs as cure cancer. We have to understand we are working with some kind of universal human values. It is reasonable for some to say scientists shouldn't tell us what to do. As a scientist, I can only give facts, but I can also talk as human being. My ethical point of view is fortunately shared by the international scientific community. It is not part of science but the international scientific community shares universal values that legitimize our expressing warnings.

Unexperienced scientists often mislead making statements about actions society “should” undertake, as if science tells us what we “should” do. Such statements can be counterproductive and can be used, for example, by deniers of climate change science to strengthen their case. On the other hand, scientists often avoid making statements about things society should or should not do, in order not to appear exaggerated or pessimistic, and yet they also have values, and expressing their value-based opinions as individuals could be very helpful when addressing societal problems, as long as they clarify that those personal opinions are not based on science.

Coming to climate and adaptation policies, we observe that the lack of certainty seems to hamper decision-making. Science seems expected to bring more certainty, and uncertainties are often used to justify delaying decisions.

M. Molina: There is a misconception when we expect climate science to be deprived of uncertainty. We accept the complexity of results with the human body, the human brain, and should accept it as well with the climate. We have to communicate with the right analogies to make the nature of climate science and therefore climate risk more generally understood. The best analogies in my opinion are those with human health. If a one-month baby has high fever in Europe, in the US, and in most countries, you bring the baby to the hospital. The doctor won't take the risk not to give him antibiotics even if the probability is higher that the baby has a viral infection, against which antibiotics won't work. In fact, there is roughly a one in twenty chance that antibiotics will be useful, but it makes sense anyhow to go to the hospital and give the baby antibiotics. This type of uncertainty is socially accepted.

In the same way, it is nonsense to argue that the end of century is too far for people to act now. People everywhere on this planet invest every day in elementary education, which will yield results in ten or twenty years from now. It is a long term investment everyone understands. Scientists must learn to tell their stories to a larger public using this kind of analogy.

The IPCC is constrained not to talk about policies, i.e. about what society should or should not do. This is all right as long as this constraint is properly expressed to the public. Furthermore, the IPCC could arrange press releases without the constraint in question, explaining clearly to society the consequences of their findings, the consequences of not talking the proper actions to prevent damage to society, etc. It is with this sort of responsible and effective communication efforts that the IPCC could work best with participation of civil society.